The writer is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for the SWC worldwide.
Justice, but not only justice.
Justice, but far more than justice.
The word that most obviously comes to mind when discussing Simon Wiesenthal's legacy is justice.
Wiesenthal has led the effort not only to track down but to bring to justice Nazi war criminals, and in the process has become the embodiment and personification of that lofty cause.
Special Report: A tribute to Simon Wiesenthal 1908 - 2005 >>
Yet it is very important that with his passing we remember not only this campaign and the reasons behind it, but also several less-well-known causes that he held dear and fought for all his life.
First and foremost was his sense of obligation to represent and speak out on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust.
Wiesenthal, who had a knack for being able to convey complex ideas in brief stories and homilies, often related that he was frequently asked why he did not return to his profession as as an architect following World War II. Europe, after all, was in ruins; as a talented architect, he could have made a fortune. His reply was that, although he was not a religious Jew, he did believe in the world to come, and that when the survivors of the Holocaust died, they would meet its victims.
The first question that the latter would ask the former, Wiesenthal explained, would be, "'You were the lucky ones, you survived, what did you do with your lives?'
"So," Wiesenthal continued, "one will say I was a lawyer, a second will say I was a teacher or an official. I, Simon Wiesenthal, will say 'I did not forget you.'"
This overriding sense of responsibility to those who were murdered by the Nazis was a dominant facet of Wiesenthal's worldview and an enormous motivation for his activities. Few people who faced the barriers and obstacles that he did would have had the dedication and perseverance that he exhibited over the course of the past five decades.
It is important in that context to identify an additional source of his dedication: his own endurance despite being incarcerated in nine different concentration and labor camps and facing certain death on two occasions. More than anything else, he sought to lend meaning to his miraculous survival.
Three other issues which Wiesenthal stressed in his campaign for justice were the importance of remembering the Nazis' non-Jewish victims, the significance of achieving justice rather than merely taking revenge and the importance of judging people by their deeds rather than by their nationality or religion.
The first of these aroused considerable controversy. The plight of the Nazis' non-Jewish victims was always a sensitive subject, but Wiesenthal consistently called for their recognition, convinced that Hitler's other victims were the Jewish people's best potential allies in Holocaust commemoration and education.
The second point was one he stressed time and again: Justice was the best way to combat the crimes of the Shoah and helped prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. Wiesenthal always felt that justice was the main bulwark against genocide and that, while revenge killings might give a sense of satisfaction that a killer had received his due, it contributed nothing in terms of education and prevention.
The last issue was brought home to Wiesenthal during his travails under the Nazis. Ukrainian security police almost killed him, and a Ukrainian acquaintance saved his life in the summer of 1941. He was tortured and almost murdered by German and Austrian Nazis on several occasions, but two humane German overseers in a labor camp helped him survive.
The Jewish people have lost a great hero. The world has lost a great humanitarian. We at the Wiesenthal center have lost a mentor and an inspiration. Yehi zichro l'baruch: May his memory be a blessing for all of us.
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